Tuesday, February 19, 2013

To Live

1994, Mandarin, 124m, Zhang Yimou (director)

Traces the history of post revolutionary China framed around the moving and beautifully enacted travails of an ordinary family with ordinary concerns as any where else. In its vivid and colorful visual narrative it succeeds in demystifying this precedent less tract of history. We see a society in the throes of transformation, and how readily the thought processes and lives of a population can be molded, for better or worse, under the spell of a single charismatic individual. It was a delight to see a Chinese marriage procession, with its brass band, with pictures of the Chairman instead of deities, and how similar it was to ours.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Doctor Zhivago

David Lean, 200m, 1965

I returned to this critically disdained epic after a couple of decades. Ebert gives it three grudging stars, while Pauline Kael scornfully dismissed its admirers as the kind of people who would be delighted to see a real horse or real gushing water on a stage. Ebert also appreciates the spectacular  train sequence saying the train is real enough to jump into. Certainly Lean is strong on the visual rather than studies in character, and his characters tend to be extreme and one dimensional. However he has a sense of historical and geographical grandeur. This is a breath taking film. The complex events comprising the Russian revolution, as well as the frozen grandeur of the landscape, are framed in the absorbing romance.

To quote Pauline Kael at some length:

"The pure-souled poet-doctor Zhivago (Omar Sharif, with wet, dark eyes) is at the center of the scenarist Robert Bolt's poetic enigma, and the director David Lean surrounds him with enormous historical reconstructions of the Russian Revolution. Neither the contemplative Zhivago nor the flux of events is intelligible, and what is worse, they seem unrelated to each other. (It's hard to know what kind of hero or even what kind of group of people could hold these events together.) And in this movie, so full of "'realism," nothing really grows-not the performances, not the ideas, not even the daffodils, which are also so "real" they have obviously been planted for us, just as the buildings have been built for us. After the first half hour you don't expect the picture to breathe and live; you just sit there. It isn't shoddy (except for the balalaika music, which is so repetitive you could kill the composer); it's stately, respectable, and dead. Though not in itself a disgraceful failure, it does have one disgraceful effect: the final shot of a rainbow over the huge dam where Zhivago's lost daughter is working. This banal suggestion that the suffering has all been for the best and that tomorrow will be brighter is not only an insult to the audience, it is a coarse gesture of condescension and appeasement to the Russians. Would Lean and Bolt place a rainbow over the future of England? With Julie Christie, who does have some life as Lara, and Rod Steiger, who brings something powerful, many-sided, and sexual to the role of Komarovsky, and Geraldine Chaplin, Alec Guinness, Tom Courtenay, Siobhan McKenna, Jack MacGowran, Rita Tushingham, Ralph Richardson, Adrienne Corri, Geoffrey Keen, Noel Willman, and Klaus Kinski, with his eyes popping and huge veins bulging out of his forehead, as the nihilist who declares, "I am the only free man on this train.""

Monday, February 11, 2013


Kenneth Branagh, 1996, 4 hours

This exuberant and lavish version of the play serves to reinforce one's mental contours and one is left with the feeling of having come closer to it's sprawling expanse. It skips nothing from the complete text and one can recognize its "something for everyone" approach and entertainment qualities. One can imagine the audience of that age held spellbound by the rapid succession of events, the humor, and the understandable tracts of reflection on life. One can imagine the playwright nodding his head in approval  at this screen version with its generous and imaginative visual garnishing without touching the text, which may be of value to students of literature.